US 20050024211 A1
An object control and tracking system and related methods using separate object identification and location detection mechanisms for objects, such as keys, that are maintained in a secure enclosure, such as a key drawer. A plurality of object slots are located on the top tray of the enclosure to receive object tags that include both an RFID tag and an object to be tracked. The objects (e.g., keys) are attached to a portion of the object tags that are outside of the enclosure. Presence detectors are used to determine if an object tag is present in the corresponding slot of the enclosure. RFID sensors located on opposite interior side walls of the enclosure interrogate each RFID tag to determine the presence of each RFID tag within the enclosure. The object control and tracking system includes a controller, a memory for storing an object control database, and related processing logic operating on the controller to control scanning of the presence detectors to determine an object tag's presence in a corresponding slot, to identify each object present in the enclosure and to compare the identified objects with an object control database to determine each object removed or replaced since the previous database update.
1. An object tracking system comprising:
a receptacle having a plurality of slots for storing a plurality of objects, each object having an associated object tag;
at least one first detector for detecting and identifying each object tag in the receptacle;
a plurality of second detectors for detecting a location within the receptacle of object tags placed in, or remove from, the receptacle; and
a controller, coupled to the first and second detectors, wherein the controller is programmed to correlate information received from the first and second detectors to identify the particular slot of the receptacle in which each object tag is located.
The present patent application is a formalization of a previously filed, co-pending provisional patent application entitled “Key Control System that Uses Separated ID and Location Detection Mechanisms,” filed Apr. 26, 2001, as U.S. Patent Application Ser. No. 60/286,760 by the inventor named in this patent application and claims the benefit of the filing date of the cited provisional patent application, according to the statutes and rules governing provisional patent applications, particularly 35 USC § 119(e)(1) and 37 CFR §§ 1.789(a)(4) and (a)(5). The specification and drawings of the provisional patent application are specifically incorporated herein by reference.
The present invention is generally related to controlling and tracking access to various types of objects. More particularly, the present invention relates to an object control system for continuous inventory of a plurality of objects.
Systems have been developed in which a user swipes an optical bar code on a key tag before placing the key tag in a slot or on a peg of a storage unit. A switch associated with the slots or pegs of the storage unit detects that a tag has been placed in a specific slot, or on a specific peg. In these systems, a connected controller assumes, but does not know with certainty, that the user has placed the swiped tag in the slot or on the peg. The shortcoming of this system, of course, is that the identification of the tag placed in a slot, or on a peg, is dependent upon the integrity of the user. A user can, for example, swipe one tag and place another tag in the slot or on the peg and the controller has no way of knowing of the deception or error. Thus, the system is not completely secure.
Other systems have been developed in which the identification of tags present in a receptacle is determined by communicating with the tags in the receptacle via infrared signals. In these systems, the controller knows that a tag is in the receptacle but cannot know the particular slot of the receptacle occupied by the tag. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are provided on each tag to identify a requested tag visually to a user requesting the key associated with the tag, such that the particular slot associated with each tag is not deemed to be critical. The shortcomings of such a system include the fact that the system can not identify the specific location of each tag within the receptacle. Similar systems have been developed wherein each tag includes an addressable switch, and an LED on the tag lights when the ID code of the particular tag within the receptacle is transmitted by the controller. In these systems, as well, the controller can never identify the specific location of a tag within the receptacle.
The inventor's previous object tracking patents, U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,801,628 and 6,075,441, used one-wire memory buttons on key tags as a preferred embodiment. The presence of a key tag in a key tag slot was determined by selectively polling each slot location using a matrix selector. In addition to determining the presence of a key tag, the one-wire memory buttons have unique identification (ID) codes that allow the key control system to identify which key tag is inserted in each slot. The inventor's prior RF key control system patent, U.S. Pat. No. 6,204,764 used radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on key tags. At each tag slot, an RFID sensor antenna was placed to communicate, and again, a matrix selector approach was used to poll each slot. Because the RFID tags contain unique ID codes, this system also determines presence and identification in the same process.
Although these object tracking systems are sophisticated and provide a continual inventory of a plurality of objects, separation of the identification function and the location/detection function can result in novel key control systems. These novel systems offer the potential to be technically simpler and thus available at lower costs.
The present invention separates the object identification function and the object location detection function in a key control system. More generally, the present invention provides an object control and tracking system and related methods that use separate object identification and location detection mechanisms for objects, that are maintained in a secure enclosure. A plurality of object slots that are “electrically small” in comparison to the wavelength of the RFID sensors are located on the top tray of the enclosure to receive object tags that include both an RFID tag and an object to be tracked. The objects are attached to a portion of the object tags that are outside of the enclosure. Presence detectors positioned on the backplane of the enclosure are used to determine if an object tag is present in the corresponding slot of the enclosure. RFID sensors located on opposite interior side walls of the enclosure interrogate each RFID tag to determine the presence of each RFID tag within the enclosure. Each RFID tag includes an anti-collision protocol to enable a plurality of RFID tags within the sensor field to be interrogated. In one embodiment, the RFID sensors include a pair of sensor coils and the RFID tags are inductive. The pair of sensor coils generate a magnetic field between the side walls of the enclosure, the magnetic field being normal to the vertical surface of each object tag. In another embodiment, the RFID sensors include capacitive plates, and the RFID tags are capacitive. The object control enclosure is constructed of metal and is shielded to prevent detection of object tags that are located externally to the enclosure and that could be contained in a separate object control enclosure.
The object control and tracking system includes a processor, a memory for storing an object control database, and related processing logic operating on the processor to control scanning of the presence detectors to determine if an object tag is present in a corresponding slot, to identify each object (via its unique RFID tag) present in the enclosure and to compare the identified objects with an object control database to determine each object removed or replaced since the previous database update.
Various types of switches mounted on the backplane are suitable for use as object tag presence detectors. These include a contact switch having a lever that is engaged to close the contact switch when an object tag is inserted into a corresponding slot. Another suitable switch includes a photo-conducting switch mounted to the backplane on a side of a corresponding slot with a light emitting diode mounted on the opposite side, such that insertion of the object tag into the slot causes an electrical circuit to open to indicate the presence of an object tag. The object tag can also include a metallic end portion or an embedded magnetic material that causes an electrical circuit to close when either an object tag is inserted into the corresponding slot and is detected by engaging a pair of contacts in the slot or when a reed switch is energized by proximity of the object tag.
In one embodiment, each object tag includes a light emitting diode circuit, an RFID addressable switch and an RFID tag coil. An RFID addressable switch enables an RFID interrogating field to selectively activate a light emitting diode on the object tag corresponding to the object a user is trying to identify in order to remove the object from the enclosure.
The invention is better understood by reading the following detailed description of the exemplary embodiments in conjunction with the accompanying drawings.
The separation of the identification and location detection functions of the present invention is described herein in the context of a system that utilizes RFID tags. It is possible using the concepts of the present invention to construct equivalent systems using one-wire memory devices and/or other memory devices.
A representation of a key control assembly having separated identification and location detection functions is illustrated in
Global RFID sensor coils are placed inside the enclosure near the right and left walls. The locations of RFID sensor coil A and RFID sensor coil B are indicated by reference numerals 27, 29 in
The key control system knows which slots 16 are occupied from the presence detectors 22, and knows which key tags 14 are inserted into the system from the RFID sensors. For some applications this may be sufficient. However, other applications require knowledge of which key tag 14 is inserted into which slot 16. This knowledge can be determined during operation as described in the flow chart illustrated in
A user must first successfully log into the key control system before being granted access to the tag inventory. The key control system includes a controller (e.g., microcontroller, personal computer), a memory device, a display and other components. The procedure illustrated in
The key tag scan is performed using the RFID tag sensor. RFID tags have anti-collision protocols that allow multiple tags within a sensor field to be interrogated. The RFID sensor scan determines the unique identification of any inserted key tags. These unique identification codes are utilized with a database of known key tag codes to determine which key tags 14 are currently inserted into the key control system as indicated in logic block 240.
After performing the key tag scan, the result is compared with the database to determine whether any key tags 14 have been removed or returned. This comparison step is indicated in logic block 250. Several possible scenarios exist including those described herein. The user may have removed one or more key tags 14; the user may have replaced one key tag 14; the user may have replaced multiple key tags 14; or the user may have removed and replaced one or more keys. These four scenarios are described in order below.
If the user has removed one or more key tags 14, then the key control system knows which key tags 14 have been removed from the RFID tag sensor scan. These keys are marked as checked out to the user as indicated in logic block 260. The user screens are updated to show the relevant key slots 16 as empty and the keys as checked out to the user. The system then reenters the scanning presence detector loop (logic block 200).
If the user has replaced one key (no-branch path from decision block 270), then the key control system will know which key tag 14 has been returned from the RFID sensor scan. The key control system will also know which key tag slot 16 the key tag 14 was placed in because only one new slot should be occupied. The key tag 14 is marked as returned, and the database is updated to reflect the key (i.e., key tag) now being located in the new slot. This is indicated in logic block 294. Finally, the user screens are updated to show the updated key tag inventory as indicated in logic block 298. The key control system reenters the scanning presence detector loop in logic block 200.
If the user has replaced more than one key tag (yes-branch path from decision block 270), then the key control system knows which key tags 14 have been returned from the RFID sensor scan, although it will not be able to unambiguously know which slot 16 the individual key tags 14 were returned to. The key control system will register the key tags 14 as returned and mark their locations as ambiguous, as indicated in logic block 280. The key control system then prompts the user to slowly remove and replace each ambiguous key tag, as indicated in logic block 290. The key control system knows which slots contain ambiguous key tags, but does not know which key tag 14 is inserted into each slot 16. The user screens are updated in logic block 298 and the key control system reenters the scanning presence detector loop in logic block 200.
If the user now follows the directions received via user prompts to remove and replace each ambiguous key tag, the key control system will be able to correctly update its location database. However, no real harm from a security standpoint is caused if the user ignores the request to remove and replace each ambiguous key tag. If a subsequent user requests an ambiguous key tag, the key control system will know that the key tag 14 can only be in a small number of key slots 16. As these key tags 14 are removed and replaced by subsequent users, the ambiguity will attenuate. For example, if the first user returns three key tags (e.g., A, B, and C) simultaneously, then all three keys are marked ambiguous and each key is given all three locations (e.g., X, Y, and Z). When a subsequent user requests key tag A, the system will notify the user that it might be in key slots X, Y, or Z. Consider that if this subsequent user pulls a key tag in slot X, the key control system will then perform the RFID key tag scan and can then tell the user which key tag 14 he removed. If it is the wrong key (e.g., B), the user can reinsert the key and try one of the other two locations. Notice that the key control system will now know the correct location for key tag B and the possible locations for key tags A and C are reduced to Y or Z. If the user then selects the key tag in slot Y, the system will perform another RFID key tag scan and can then tell the user if he has removed the desired key tag. Either way, all the ambiguity created by the first user has been removed by this point.
The final scenario to be described occurs if the user has removed and replaced key tags 14 before the system can respond. On first inspection, one might conclude that a user could fool the system by quickly removing one key tag 14 and inserting another into its slot 16 before the system can notice the removal. The speed of the presence detector scan should be fast enough to prevent this, but a secure system should not simply rely on speed. The closing of the key control drawer initiates the logic processing depicted in the flow chart of
When the drawer is closed (logic block 300), an RFID key tag scan is performed to inventory all the key tags 14 in the drawer, as indicated in logic block 310. The key tags 14 present are compared with the database to determine removals and replacements, as indicated in logic block 320. Any discrepancies will be caught by the key control system at this time. Any unrecorded key returns will be logged in and their locations marked as ambiguous, as indicated in logic block 340. Any unrecorded key removals will be checked out to the user, as indicated in logic block 330. If an ambiguity exists, as determined in decision block 350, the user is notified of this ambiguity and given the opportunity to reopen the drawer and correct any mistakes as indicated in logic block 360. It is not possible for the user to get away with the removal of a key tag 14 in a key control system without logging it out. The worse that could happen is that the user can return a key tag and create an ambiguity in the key tag slot location 16. If no ambiguity exists, then the key drawer closing procedure is continued, as indicated in logic block 370.
The location of the RFID sensor coils 26, 28 within the key control system is shown in
The key tags 14 are inserted through the key tag slots 16 as shown in the end view of
The shielded enclosure 12 either is constructed of metal or is made conducting so that it acts as a shield. RFID tags 30 are interrogated at frequencies up to a few gigahertz (GHz). As long as the key tag slots 16 are electrically small, i.e., sized much less than the electromagnetic wavelength, then the magnetic field will be contained within the key control enclosure 12. The wavelength equals the speed of light divided by the frequency. At 1 GHz, the wavelength is approximately 1 foot. A typical key tag slot 16 is no longer than one inch. At lower frequencies, the wavelength increases and the key tag slot 16 is thus even more electrically small.
Containing the magnetic RFID interrogation field as described above is preferred because the presence detectors 22 and tag identification sensor work in tandem to know that key tags 14 are present and in which slot 16 they reside. If the magnetic interrogation field was not carefully confined, the potential then exists to pick up and read the ID code of tags outside, but nearby the key control enclosure 12. This would disrupt the logic processing outlined in
Several approaches for detecting the presence of key tags 14 in key tag slots 16 are described herein. Four such approaches are shown in
A second approach that is related to the first is to simply make the end 34 of the key tag 14 metallic and place a pair of contacts 46 vertically on the backplane 24 as shown in
A third approach is to utilize a photo-conducting switch 50 as shown in
A fourth approach is to utilize a magnetic reed switch 60 as shown in
The switch or other sensor used for presence/absence detectors 22 can be configured in a matrix configuration. The circuit shown in
As described above, proper key tag alignment is required for the presence detectors to operate. Several viable approaches for tag alignment are possible and are discussed below.
A first approach is to place key tag receptacles 70 onto the backplane 24 below each key tag slot 16, as illustrated in
A second option is to construct alignment devices 72 that can be attached to the bottom or top of the top tray as shown in
Further options include simply using multiple, vertically offset inventory trays to keep the key tags aligned when inserted. Additionally, a slot can be made in a backplane below each key tag slot to allow the key tag to pass through the backplane to ensure alignment. Using non-metallic materials such as plastic for these alignment devices causes no real problem for the magnetic RFID tag sensors.
One elegant way to overcome the ambiguity problem discussed above is to embed indicators into the key tag.
The majority of this description has been directed to the use of a magnetic RF interrogation field and inductive RFID tags. Embodiments that are based on capacitive RFID tags are also possible. One alternative embodiment is illustrated in
In general, the approach described herein uses one global sensor apparatus to interrogate all of the inserted key tags. While the single key tag sensor is the preferred embodiment, it may also be feasible to partition the enclosure into sub-enclosures. In that situation, one key tag sensor apparatus will then be used for each sub-enclosure.
The inventor's prior object tracking patents, U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,801,628 and 6,075,441, and RF key control system patent, U.S. Pat. No. 6,204,764, have described key control systems that utilize a one-wire memory device on key tags. The construction techniques are covered in these prior patents. The disclosures of each of these three prior patents are incorporated by reference herein in their entirety. The separated presence detection and identification mechanism described herein is also applicable to a one-wire memory device. Several approaches are possible. In a first approach, the one-wire memory device can be attached to a single, common bus on the backplane. This would allow all of the memory devices with unique IDs to be read serially. A matrix of presence detectors can also be placed on the backplane as described herein to determine which key tag slots contain key tags. Alternatively, multiple buses can be utilized. For example, there can be one bus per row or column, or perhaps one bus per zone of the backplane.
An additional reader on the outside of the key drawer is provided for an easy and straightforward method of entering tags into the key control system. Otherwise, the tags could be entered by entering a tag ID first, and then inserting the tag into the key control system for the system to assign the next RFID or button number to the entered tag ID. The tag ID in this case is an identifier that the user enters into the system to identify a particular tag. This reader can also be used for user access cards to log into the system.
An additional secure embodiment is to utilize assigned key tag slots. In this embodiment, the system of the key control system will not need presence detectors because location is assumed. If the user places the tag in the wrong slot, the system will still log the tag in as returned. If the user tries to take a key tag not requested, the key control system will still log it out to him because the global key tag scan notices its absence. Hence, the key control system is still secure, even though locations may be ambiguous. The aforementioned embedded indicator approach can be utilized to identify the requested key tag.
The invention described herein has used the term “key control enclosure” throughout. The preferred embodiment is for the key control enclosure to be a drawer. Other embodiments are vertically mounted cabinets, mobile carriers, or an open range embodiment. The objects being tracked have been described herein specifically as keys on key tags. Again, this is a preferred embodiment. However, various objects can be tracked using the approach described herein. For example, drugs, jewelry, portable bar code scanners, communication radios, etc. can use the teachings of this invention.
Those skilled in the art will appreciate that many modifications to the exemplary embodiments of the present invention are possible without departing from the spirit and scope of the present invention. In addition, it is possible to use some of the features of the present invention without the corresponding use of the other features. Accordingly, the foregoing description of the exemplary embodiments are provided for the purpose of illustrating principles of the present invention and not in limitation thereof, since the scope of the present invention is defined solely by the appended claims.